“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





15 October 2012


Veteran Rutherglen winesmith Mick Morris was awarded the Order of Australia earlier this year.  The Morris winery at Fairfield Estate was Australia's biggest until the dreaded Phylloxera struck Rutherglen late in the 1800s. Thanks to photographer John Russell and The Border Watch for permission to use this image.
Taking The Mick In Rutherglen
Great Muscats In Kelly Country
Sharing A Few Ancient Tinctures
by PHILIP WHITE – This was written for The Sydney Review in June 1991

The roof is low and it ticks in the heat.  Little bit of a ripple of old galvo; just a flyspot on Aussie.  Underneath, in the dark, the rows of sweaty black barrels suck the light from the air, just as the glowering juice inside them will suck all the water out of your eyes.  

The only brightness in here is where the sun pings through old nailholes, splattering the dirt floor with hot white polka dots.

This is where Mick Morris works.  He comes out of the gloom in his neat olive drills, with ‘Morris Wines’ in racy cursive on the pocket.  He is a nuggety, sun-dried man that looks at you through a pair of squinting eyes that shine, even here, and his hand is like a mechanic’s.  He moves sideways a touch, and one of those inch-wide sunbeams lights up the parting of his short back’n‘sides.  He is shrouded in cobwebs.  They stick to his hair oil.  The brightness of the sunspot hurts your eyes. 

“Would you like to have a look around the winery?” he asks, wiping his hands on a rag. 

You tend to lurch at him when he says it: a rude, lustful, salivatory sort of lunge that you immediately regret, but it makes no impact on Mick.  Happens to him all the time.  ’Cause when he picks up a couple of glasses and that metre of stained plastic hose and leads you off into the dark you know you are a very lucky piglet indeed, and you are about to do some irreparable damage to your old notions of heaven.  Here under this roof, this bloke is the caretaker of one of the galaxy’s rarest troves: a shedful of very old Muscat, some of it pre-Phylloxera. 

The smell of the joint is as vivid as its pictures.  Somewhere there amongst the musty, dusty aromas of ancient oak, hot iron, powdery gunmetal dirt, and a thousand tiny leaks where the good oil drips and weeps, you have a cornucopia of smells, all Australian, and the single absolute essence of this larrikin isle, ca. 1859, which is when this temple opened.

Follow Mick down the barrels, stepping slow and soft to leave both powdery floor and slumbering, sulking Muscat as they are, and you can hear the jangle and clatter of harness and hoof as Ned (left) and the Kelly Gang rocks up for a long slow one.  Rutherglen is, after all, their patch.

There are wines here which began their life in those days.  At the end of your sipping, slurping, sighing lap with Mick, if you’re particularly good, he may take you to one small cognac barrel which seems to be the holiest of holies.  The stuff inside has wasted and evaporated, concentrated and stewed there beneath the baking roof for so long it has turned to treacle.  Its siphoning days are long past: you dip a stick in now and lick it and you know you have, in that drop, the refined spirit of what was once many buckets of ripe, sweet Muscat grapes. 

A spoonful of such concentrate can make a cask of much younger stuff take great leaps toward the sort of magnificence only large age can impart: it is, in fact, concentrated age.  You will taste it for days, and then weeks, and even months and years later, in the supermarket queue, at the dull wheel, in your bed or the pub or the pool, some trigger will squeeze and the grin will spread and the eyes glaze as the flavour and the whiff and the rich, sticky glory of it all comes sweeping back.

Once when I visited, Mick apologised that that muscat in ‘Grandad’s Barrel’ wasn’t as old and pure as it may have seemed.  It seemed very damned old to me, with its gluey, utterly hypnotising nature. 

How, I enquired, could it not be old?

“Well”, said Mick, staring at his boots, “it got so thick a few years back I had to freshen it up a bit”.

“Oh Mick, really?  How long back?”

“About thirty years.”

“Oh.  And what did you dilute it with?”

“Just a little bit of forty year old.”


But it’s not all muscat there in Mick’s shed.  He has Muscadelle, which they call Tokay in Rutherglen, as old and profound in its intense wicked stickiness, and a hoard of ageing Durif, which he uses in vintage port and dry red table wine.   
He came my way recently, and we snuck out to lunch. 

“I don’t make much white, so I’ve brought mainly reds”, he said softly enough for the uninitiated to imagine he was apologising.

“You don’t make any bloody white, Morris”, I joked, knowing his son David does most of that at Griffith.

“And of course you’ve brought ALL reds!”

Those deep cellar eyes did their lightshow and he poured out his Shiraz/Durif sparkling burgundy, and said “This is far too young, this stuff”, and I agreed and it went down like silk, like velvet, like Bess the landlord’s daughter.  The landlord’s black-eyed daughter.

“Now we’ll have the lighter red”, he said, tipping his new Cabernet, the 1988.  It was intense, sinister wine of much proportion: a silky thing, but strong. I said as much.

“Yes, it’s about 15.1%”, he said, apparently oblivious to the rest of the winemakers in Australia, who try to keep their table wines between eleven and thirteen percent alcohol by volume. 

“But if you like the bigger wines, you’ll probably like the Durif”, he said, “They get up above sixteen.”

“Oh.  Doesn’t port start at seventeen?”

“Yeah.  But that’s fortified.  That’s different.”


I may point out here that one degree Baum√© is a level of grape sweetness which, when fermented to dryness, will produce just over one per cent by volume pure ethanol.  The intensely sweet botrytis dessert wines you find in half bottles are not much riper than these black grapes Mick uses to make dry red.  The difference is he ferments all that sugar to alcohol, producing very deep strong wines of great longevity.

Any way, we ploughed through various back vintages of Durif, finally lobbing at the 1970, which, for a wicked black thing, actually smelt a lot like a good sauternes, a suggestion at which Mick showed faint signs of shock.  It was rich, sweet, chocolatey wine, naive, sinuous, long, and as clean as a whistle.

“I think that’d be fairly high in alcohol”, Mick warned.

“Oh?” I said, looking quizzically at the label, which clearly stated “13.5% ALCOHOL”.

“We used to out 13.5 on the labels in those days because we thought that was optimal.  We never got that low much, though, of course.  They ripen up quick.”


“Now.  I’ve brought along a couple of bottles of my Old Show Muscat for us to try.”


“And some Old Show Tokay.  Bottled it up ’specially.  I actually prefer the Tokay.  You’ll notice... ”

There is no point in writing more about this.

Morris Winery ... now part of the transnational Pernod-Ricard group, whose major Australian winery is at Jacob's Creek in the Barossa.  The current furore about South Australian authorities attempting to relax the regulations on the movement of machinery and plant material from Phylloxera country into Phylloxera-free vignobles reflects the concern of South Australian growers of priceless old vines on their own roots. They feel the regulations should be tightened, not relaxed.

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